Well, that’s over, and it was boring. There was no confrontation. And nothing really changed. And no one did or said anything particularly surprising. It was very Swiss. The Swiss are a quietly efficient people, in their intentionally absolutely neutral country, who never say anything indiscreet. They never take sides. Their banks are discreet too – they disclose nothing about any account, always numbered, with no name listed, without intense legal and international pressure, which seldom works anyway. In fact, the Swiss disclose nothing about anything. Don’t expect gossip. Leave that to the French next door. Don’t expect passion. Head south across the border to Italy for that. Don’t expect madcap humor. That’s for the Brits. These are a boring people, and they like it that way.
That may be why Biden and Putin met in Geneva. The press expected fireworks. This was the big showdown. One of them would be the fool, but President Biden had warned the media. This was going to be boring, or maybe the word is administrative. He would state the United States’ position on all the issues. Putin would state Russia’s position on what he would say were Russia’s issues. Then they’d talk, but not to resolve anything. This was just to make sure both sides knew what they would be talking about from this point forward. No one was going to win anything, yet. No one was going to lose anything, yet.
The press was flummoxed. This wasn’t right. They wanted action. But this was Switzerland and they misunderstood Joe Biden. The New York Times’ Peter Baker saw this:
No one peered admiringly into anyone’s soul. No one called anyone a killer. By all appearances, President Biden’s much-anticipated meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was not warm, but neither was it hot.
As he became the fifth American president to sit down with the troublesome Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden on Wednesday made an effort to forge a working relationship shorn of the ingratiating flattery of his immediate predecessor yet without the belligerent language that he himself has employed about the Russian leader in the past.
Biden was direct and businesslike. Putin looked a bit bored, but he played along:
If their opening encounter in Geneva proves any indication, theirs seems likely to be a strained and frustrating association, one where the two leaders may maintain a veneer of civil discourse even as they joust on the international stage and in the shadows of cyberspace. The two emerged from two and a half hours of meetings having reviewed a laundry list of disputes without a hint of resolution to any of them and no sign of a personal bond that could bridge the gulf that has opened between their two nations.
But they had their list. They don’t have to like each other. There’s work to do. Just be civil:
Their assessments of each other were dutiful but restrained. Mr. Putin called Mr. Biden “a very balanced, professional man” and “very experienced” politician. “It seems to me that we did speak the same language,” Mr. Putin said. “It certainly doesn’t imply that we looked into each other’s eyes and found a soul or swore eternal friendship.”
As for Mr. Biden, he did not answer when asked if he had developed a deeper understanding of the Russian leader and avoided characterizing his counterpart. Their talks were “good, positive,” he said, and not “strident.” They discussed their disagreements, “but it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere.”
Mr. Biden, who agreed this year with an interviewer that Mr. Putin was a “killer,” said on Wednesday that he had no need to discuss that further. “Why would I bring it up again?” Mr. Biden asked.
That’s no fun. The press wanted more. They got this:
Asked as he was leaving his post-meeting news conference how he could be confident that Mr. Putin’s behavior would change, Mr. Biden whirled about and grew testy. “When did I say I was confident?” he snapped at a reporter. “I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating a fact.”
Biden later apologized for being so blunt, but he has been angry. Putin isn’t changing. Only a fool would expect that. This was about doing what could be done in the next six months or a year to cool things down. But yes, these two did not get along:
The fact that Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin offered their judgments at separate news conferences was itself a telling sign of the coolness in the relationship. Since 1989, when President George H. W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union addressed reporters together after a summit meeting in Malta, joint media appearances have been the standard for American and Russian leaders.
Mr. Biden opted instead not to share a stage with the Russian leader, drawing a sharp contrast with Mr. Trump, who benefited from Russian interference in the 2016 campaign even though no illegal collusion was ever charged. With the master of the Kremlin by his side in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018, Mr. Trump memorably suggested that he trusted Mr. Putin’s denial more than American intelligence agencies that detected the election interference – a view the former president reaffirmed just last week.
Mr. Biden, by contrast, emphasized that he did not place his faith in Mr. Putin. “This is not about trust,” he said. “This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.”
Trump trusted Putin, not the deep state, the CIA and FBI and NSA and our military. Those people were traitors and fools and perverts who had been out to get him all along. He trusted Putin, and this day Biden shrugged. He doesn’t trust Putin. Trump does. But he is president and Donald Trump isn’t. He’s got this:
After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, President Barack Obama, with the support of Mr. Biden, then his vice president, sought to isolate Mr. Putin, throwing him out of the Group of 8 industrialized nations and refusing to meet with him.
Mr. Biden has effectively abandoned that approach, gambling that it was better to grant Mr. Putin the respect of a meeting and the stature that comes from sitting down with an American president in hopes of preventing further escalation in the conflict with Moscow. The goal is less to make the situation better than to keep it from becoming worse.
That may have worked:
Some experts said offering the Geneva meeting may have forestalled Mr. Putin from taking more aggressive action in recent weeks, given that in the interim he pulled back at least some troops he had massed on the border with Ukraine and provided medical assistance to Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader who was said to be on the edge of death.
That’s a start:
They each voiced their divergent positions afterward, with Mr. Biden condemning Russian cyberattacks, international aggression and domestic oppression and Mr. Putin engaging in his typical what-about defense by citing objectionable American actions. In a truculent tone, Mr. Putin even defended his crackdown on nonviolent opposition figures like Mr. Navalny by saying he wanted to avoid an insurrection like the Jan. 6 storming of the United States Capitol, a comparison Mr. Biden called “ridiculous.” But they kept their criticisms from becoming personal.
“It was businesslike, it was professional,” said Angela E. Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia and author of books about Mr. Putin and the West. “Neither of them really gave ground on anything. But they seemed to have established something that could be a working relationship.”
That’s a start:
Fiona Hill, who as Mr. Trump’s senior Russia adviser was so alarmed by his deference to Mr. Putin in Helsinki that she has said she thought about faking a medical emergency to end the session, called this meeting a marked contrast. “It just feels more professional on both sides,” she said.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden came into office determined to “reset” relations with Russia and made some progress by negotiating a new arms control treaty and transit rights for American troops heading to Afghanistan through Russian airspace. But Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin came to disdain each other even before the Ukraine invasion, with the American mocking the Russian for having a “kind of slouch” that made him look “like that bored schoolboy in the back of the classroom.”
Mr. Trump’s relationship with Mr. Putin was most perplexing because he broke from bipartisan consensus and lavished extravagant praise on a Russian leader considered an anti-democratic, anti-American authoritarian by almost everyone else in Washington. Under pressure from Congress or his own advisers, Mr. Trump’s administration, at times, imposed sanctions or expelled diplomats in response to Russian provocations, but the president himself avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Putin.
Forget that. Trump is gone. Biden’s got this:
Even discounting Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden arrived in Geneva with the advantage of having met with Mr. Putin before as vice president and watching his predecessors struggle with the Putin challenge. “He’s trying to synthesize all the lessons from every other president,” Ms. Hill said.
As a result, the Biden team knew how Mr. Putin tries to knock American presidents off guard by keeping them waiting or by having the last word, so it made certain to sidestep those traps in Geneva by starting the meetings on time and having Mr. Biden go second in the dueling news conferences.
“Our side now knows what the games are that Putin plays,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior Pentagon official focused on Russia under Mr. Obama. “There are a lot of things we got smart on.”
But if Mr. Biden avoided a rupture with Mr. Putin at their first meeting, it was only the beginning of this latest chapter in Russian-American relations. “We can all wipe the sweat off our brow that we got through that one,” Ms. Hill said. “The question is what comes next.”
But they have their list of issues. There’s work to do. This went well.
Max Boot explains why:
Seasoning and sobriety are underappreciated virtues in politics. Voters normally opt for novelty and excitement when choosing a president. The result is that we usually wind up with foreign policy neophytes in the Oval Office. When these tyros make their maiden trip abroad, they cause considerable jitters among observers and aides, who wonder: Will the president know what he is doing? Will he say something he shouldn’t? Will he be rolled by more experienced leaders?
With President Biden, there is no such concern. He has decades of experience in foreign policy as a globe-trotting vice president and senator. His foreign policy chops showed on his trip to Europe – and paid dividends for the American people.
He was on a roll:
Biden established an easy rapport with his fellow democratic leaders at meetings with the Group of Seven, the European Union and NATO. “I think it’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. As a congenial insider, Biden was able to accomplish far more than a testy outsider such as Donald Trump ever could. Biden got fellow leaders to agree on a 15 percent global corporate minimum tax, on sending 1 billion doses of covid-19 vaccines to the developing world (not enough, but a start), on speaking out about the challenge posed by China, and on settling a long-festering European-American trade dispute over aircraft subsidies.
Even before Biden stepped foot in Europe, his approval ratings among U.S. allies had soared. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 16 countries, the percentage of people who have faith in the U.S. president to do the right thing in foreign affairs has risen on average from 17 percent last year to 75 percent today. Biden’s sure-footed, gaffe-free trip may send those numbers even higher.
The meetings with allies were, in some sense, merely a prelude for meeting with one of the United States’ most effective foes – Vladimir Putin.
In short, he had the nations of the West behind him and he wasn’t going to be Putin’s amusingly naïve Trump:
One cannot imagine a starker contrast between Biden and his predecessor than in their handling of the Russian strongman. At Helsinki in July 2018, then-President Trump simpered and cowered. In a low point of a presidency with more low points than Death Valley, Trump accepted at face value Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials of complicity in the 2016 election attack. Putin emerged from that meeting smirking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
As the historian Michael Beschloss noted, there was no such grin on Putin’s lips when he did his solo press conference after meeting with Biden on Wednesday. While Putin engaged in his usual dishonesty and whataboutism – he compared his jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the prosecution of the Capitol rioters – his manner was subdued and far from triumphant. He attacked the United States but was careful not to insult Biden personally. He even compared the current president favorably to his predecessor: “President Biden is an experienced statesman. He is very different from President Trump.” (Ouch. That’s got to sting for Putin’s biggest fanboy in the United States.)
Biden had him, and then laid down the issues now:
He made clear that he raised human-rights concerns with Putin. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” he asked. It is almost unimaginable – had we not just witnessed the Trump presidency. Biden said he told Putin that, if Navalny dies in a Russian prison, the consequences would be “devastating for Russia.” He said he also raised Russia’s complicity in cyberattacks, its interference with humanitarian aid in Syria, and its invasion of Ukraine (he expressed support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”), while holding out the hope of cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program, stability in Afghanistan, nuclear arms control and other issues.
Putin’s smirk was gone:
One can argue that Putin is rewarded for his misbehavior by being granted the world’s stage in Geneva in a way that the leaders of larger economies, such as Italy or India, are not.
But there is a diplomatic benefit from the summit that may outweigh the cost of boosting Putin’s standing. That is to have an experienced and principled U.S. president communicate clearly and unequivocally to the “killer” in the Kremlin what U.S. interests and expectations are – and to let him know that there will be grave consequences for misbehavior.
That appears to be exactly what Biden did. Whether Putin got the message remains to be seen. But at least it’s nice to have a president who knows what message to deliver.
But that may not matter. Putin has already captured half of America. Slate’s William Saletan explains how that happened:
President Joe Biden wants to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message: that the era of Donald Trump is over, that the United States won’t ignore Putin’s crimes anymore, and that the world’s democracies are united against Russian aggression. That’s why, before his meeting with Putin in Switzerland on Wednesday, Biden conferred with European leaders and reaffirmed NATO’s unity. But as Biden works to project solidarity and resolve, he’s hobbled by a political base that Trump has built for Putin in the United States: a Republican Party infested with Kremlin sympathizers and opponents of NATO.
Putin had played Trump. This was Putin’s preemptive victory:
Republicans used to be tough on Russia. But when they surrendered to Trump in 2016, many of them surrendered to Putin, too. In Gallup polls before 2016, Republicans generally viewed Russia less favorably than Democrats did. Now it’s the other way around. In polls taken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Republicans used to be more likely than Democrats to view Russia as a critical threat and to emphasize containment of Russian power rather than “friendly cooperation.” By 2017, those numbers had turned upside down: Only one in three Republicans described Russia’s military power as a critical threat, and most said the U.S. should focus on cooperation instead of limiting Russia’s power.
Today, Trump is out of office, but the partisan realignment persists. By margins of 10 to 20 percentage points, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to agree that Russia is an enemy, less likely to express concern about “the poisoning of opposition leaders and the suppression of dissent within Russia,” and more likely to insist on “friendly relations.” Only 4 percent of Republicans, compared to 44 percent of Democrats, identify Russia as “the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat.” Only 29 percent of Republicans, compared to 51 percent of Democrats, agree that Russia is “an enemy of the United States.”
Trump did his job well:
Many Republicans personally trust or admire Putin. Seventy-five percent of Democrats agree that he “poses a threat to the United States,” but only 60 percent of Republicans do. Twenty percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners, compared to 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners, are confident that he’ll “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” More than 60 percent of Democrats view Putin very unfavorably, but only 30 percent to 40 percent of Republicans do.
In two polls taken this week – one by Morning Consult for Politico, the other by YouGov for the Economist – Putin has a better net favorable rating among Republicans than Biden does, by margins of 16 and 22 points, respectively.
All of this makes Putin untouchable:
These soft attitudes weaken Biden’s hand. They indicate to the Kremlin that when Biden threatens to use force or impose sanctions, Republicans won’t back him. Last year, in a Chicago Council poll, most Democrats endorsed the use of American troops to defend our Baltic allies from Russian invasion, but most Republicans didn’t. In April, when an Economist/YouGov survey asked about new sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia over hacking allegations, three-quarters of Democrats supported the sanctions, but fewer than half of Republicans did.
And it’s the same with NATO:
In 2017, Republicans opposed withdrawal from NATO by a ratio of more than two to one; a year later, on the same question, they were evenly divided. In 2020, a Chicago Council survey found that Republican support for NATO had fallen to its lowest level “since the question was first asked in 1974.” In this week’s Economist/YouGov poll, Republicans viewed NATO unfavorably by a decisive margin, 49 percent to 31 percent. And while more than 70 percent of Democrats say the U.S. should maintain its commitment “to defend NATO allies when they are attacked,” only 52 percent of Republicans agree.
But that’s not the half of it:
Beyond NATO, a partisan gap has opened over the whole idea of defending democracy. In a 2018 Chicago Council poll, 54 percent of Democrats said “the decline of democracy around the world” was a critical threat to U.S. interests. Only 36 percent of Republicans shared that view. A year later, 52 percent of Democrats said “the rise of authoritarianism” was a critical threat; only 30 percent of Republicans agreed. Three months ago, in a survey by the Center for American Progress, 72 percent of Democrats agreed that “America has clear security and economic interests in building alliances with other democracies to protect individual rights and fight corruption.” Only 52 percent of Republicans felt that way. In February, the Reagan foundation found that 71 percent of Democrats were willing to invest more money in “promoting freedom abroad,” but most Republicans weren’t.
It seems that half of America thinks we need more fascist states everywhere in the world. Fascist dictators get things done. As many Americans said in the thirties, Mussolini may be a tyrant and a pompous ass and a total dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. Here we go again. Putin has won this thing:
When Putin interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, his goal was to sow mutual distrust among Americans and weaken our country. He hoped to boost Trump, but he figured that Hillary Clinton would win, and he wanted to cripple her. Five years later, Trump has delivered more than the Kremlin could have asked for: He turned Americans against one another, attacked our institutions, attempted a coup, and relentlessly defended Russian aggression. To this day, Trump denounces our government as illegitimate.
And he has built a political force that will serve Putin well in his confrontations with Biden.
Ans so much for that sunny afternoon in Geneva. Biden had his say. The entire Republican Party over here has Putin’s back. He may have looked a bit defensive and defeated in Geneva, but that doesn’t matter. Trump did his job. Putin owns America now.
Maybe that’s why the Swiss summit was kind of boring. It didn’t matter. Putin had already captured America.